Monday, January 5, 2009

SS: When Did My Neighborhood Become The Heart of Darkness?

I have to stop reading “The City” section of “The New York Times.” It seems as though every other week there’s another article about my Queens neighborhood, Jackson Heights, and more times than not, after reading the piece, I want to crumple the entire section into a jagged little ball and shove it down the writer’s throat, hard. This is because few writings about Jackson Heights are anything more than dime-store travelogues, which treat my neighborhood as though it’s some ethnic zoo, to be visited and thrilled at and then, if the tigers and polar bears don’t feel like eating the crackers you throw over the fence at them – dismissed, one way or the other. It’s insulting.

I opened up “The City” section yesterday morning to a typical example. The teaser above the piece read, “He hoped to find in Queens the exoticism he loved from his years abroad. But again and again, the doors to this world slammed shut.” I could tell this was going to be a good one, so I read on.

The writer describes moving to Jackson Heights in 2006 in an effort to discover the “discreet ethnic underworlds” of Queens, which he assumes will be as exciting and personally fulfilling as those “exotic environments” he left behind when he returned to the United States after living for six years in what he refers to only as “developing nations.” Presumably one of those nations is Indonesia, as he notes having lived for two years in the world’s largest Islamic country.

Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t work out for the writer, as the denizens of Jackson Heights and other immigrant-heavy Queens enclaves don’t seem to want to deliver on the exotic goodies the writer presumes are just hiding above every storefront or in a backroom of every restaurant. He details his many efforts to penetrate “the underworld” throughout the course of 18 months. He tries several times to get in the door at an unmarked Korean bar under the 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue, and his knocks always go unanswered, despite the obvious action going on inside, until, finally, he gets in the door, only to be greeted by a Korean woman who shouts, “No! Korea! Korea! Only Korea!”

There are many similar instances. He goes to a “crusty bar” where he encounters “Irishmen equipped with authentic accents and swollen red cheeks” (at least he can cross “find a drunken Irishman to add flare to NYT piece” off his to-do list), only to be made fun of when he orders root beer instead of booze. Luckily for him, one of the Irish men makes a racist remark, so he can dismiss this piece, which doesn’t fit in with his “Jackson Heights-the-ethnic-Disneyworld” narrative and move on to pester those living that more authentic Jackson Heights life, the ones located in the “vibrant South Asian communities” around 74th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

Over in the vibrant heart of Jackson Heights, while “documenting the neighborhood’s colorful streets” with his camera, the writer runs into some trouble in his attempts to capture locals striking their ethnic poses: They run away from him. He notes that he can hear several saying “snitching” and “immigration” under their breath. I have to question if this is true. I think you’d have to have superhero ears to actually be able to hear someone mumbling under their breath on a typically crowded, noisy Jackson Heights street. More likely, he asked people to pose for him, and they refused.

And I applaud them for refusing. I’d do the same thing, though I’m a white girl who was born in this country, and therefore have no appeal to writers like the one in this yesterday’s paper. I don’t fit into the Jackson Heights narrative that was clearly already in the head of this writer before he ever took his first step off the 74th Street stop of the 7 train. I just go about my business here, living with my husband, walking my dog, getting groceries, looking for parking. All the same things that millions of people across the city (maybe in Manhattan there are less looking for parking and more looking for empty seats on the subway) do every day. And these are the same things the people in my neighborhood do as well, whether they are Colombian, Pakistani, Korean, Filipino or any other ethnicity, “exotic” or not. They are people – not models posing in a diorama at the Museum of Natural History.

At the end of the piece, the writer says he moved back to Manhattan. I hope he finds what he’s looking for there, probably it's “authentic city living” or something similar. He had it in Jackson Heights, but he couldn’t see past his own narrative.

Copyright January 5, 2009 by Sarah E. Stanfield

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, Sarah. Thanks so much for articulating so well the disgust/annoyance I felt on reading that New York Times article. [By the way, I feel the same disgust when I hear yuppies bemoaning how they have to hurry and visit some poor country that is modernizing and pulling itself out of poverty because in ten years it won't be "real." As if others on earth are put there to entertain us, instead of making their own lives better.]